“Before Abraham was, I am…”

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“Jesus said,  “Truly, Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am. (John 8:58)

This is the title of a small section from the massive stained glass window at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, London SW1, designed and executed by the famous Victorian duo Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. It’s taken from  here.

A barefooted and beardless Jesus is seen in dispute with religious leaders. His youthfulness has presumably been accentuated to suggest the line: “You are not yet fifty.” In the picture, one of the “teachers of the law” actually cowers under Jesus’ words, perhaps overwhelmed by the  apparent blasphemy that caused them to seek to stone Jesus when the words were spoken.

But a more senior figure takes a more commanding position, and thrusts out a hand to restrain this colleague, whilst his other hand is akimbo, suggesting control and decision. It’s the kind of position a person might take to say “Don’t you presume to tell me what to do, young man.”

Do you see the irony of the scene? They are using his youthfulness as a put-down, whilst he calmly claims eternity. “Before Abraham was, I am.

They begin to call Jesus names. They could not refute his statements so they attacked his person.  It’s the standard  argumentum ad hominem (“Argument towards the person”) – a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. 

So verse 48 reads, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  To call him a Samaritan was as bad a racist slur as could be made. The Samaritans derived from Jewish stock that had intermarried with pagan gentiles that had been deported to Palestine by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom had been deported and resettled. And subsequently, “The Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans.” (John 4)

The other charge was to say he had a demon, as they did several times  (John 7:20; John 10:20; Matt. 12:24). Are you crazy?

‘I am not possessed by a demon,’ said Jesus, ‘but I honour my Father and you dishonour me.  I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge.  Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.’

There’s the key: accepting the words of Jesus is the way into a different kind of living.

“At this they exclaimed, ‘Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?’

Jesus replied, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.  Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word.  Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.’

 ‘You are not yet fifty years old,’ they said to him, ‘and you have seen Abraham!’

The Jews, although they knew better, chose to take this literally. “How,” they demanded, “can you have seen Abraham when you are not yet fifty?” Why fifty? That was the age at which the Levites retired from their service (Numbers 4:3). The Jews were saying to Jesus: “You are a young man, still in the prime of life, not even old enough to retire from service. How can you possibly have seen Abraham? This is mad talk.”

It was then that Jesus made that most staggering statement: “Before Abraham was, I am.” We must note carefully that Jesus did not say: “Before Abraham was, I was,” but, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Here is the claim that Jesus is timeless. There never was a time when he came into being; there never will be a time when he is not in being.

What did he mean? Obviously he did not mean that he, the human figure Jesus, had always existed. We know that Jesus was born into this world at Bethlehem; there is more than that here. Think of it this way. There is only one person in the universe who is timeless; and that one person is God. What Jesus is saying here is nothing less than that the life in him is the life of God; he is saying, as the writer of the Hebrews put it more simply, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever.

In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is.

“Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’  At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”

They have refused to see who Jesus really is, and so, in a symbolic gesture, he hides himself from their sight.

 And isn’t it so in our generation too?

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